To understand the significance of Gary Strobel’s scientific breakthrough, look no further than calf 166, an animal that was on death’s door before the researcher intervened.
In a calving barn in Belgrade, calf 166 was down for the count, having lost several gallons of fluid to a deadly diarrhea condition known as scours. Ranchers Scott Kreuz and Bob Marx had gone as far as pumping fluid into the animal intravenously, but the diarrhea wouldn’t stop, and calf 166’s blood pressure was fading fast. Soon the calf’s organs would start failing for lack of blood flow.
That’s when Marx remembered a business card Bryan Blatt had given him. Blatt had chatted up the rancher earlier about an untested discovery by Strobel that looked like it might turn a sick calf around.
Marx pulled out his cellphone and gave Blatt a call.
“Here’s your chance,” Marx said. “This calf will be dead in two hours.”
Strobel began mixing an antidote. As scientists go, Strobel is rock star, a retired Montana State University naturalist and microbiologist who more than 20 years ago became known for discovering beneficial fungi in the world’s rainforests.
He’s discovered fungi that make diesel fuel, and microorganisms that protect food from spoiling. His discoveries have muted the foul smell of feedlots and taken the blight out of strawberry fields naturally, without the use of chemicals. The Smithsonian Institute owns the red stocking cap Strobel wore while discovering several fungi that produce Taxol, a powerful cancer drug.
Along his scientific travels, Strobel began finding ingredients he thought may be beneficial to fighting multiple causes of deadly diarrhea, not only in animals but also in people.
“It’s a problem. It’s in the top half-dozen killers of humans,” Strobel told Lee Montana Newspapers. “You wouldn’t think that’s the case, but most of the folks killed are in Third World countries,” countries the scientific explorer has visited many times.
But it takes years of testing and research before the Food and Drug Administration will sign off on a treatment for any human malady. At Blatt’s encouragement, Strobel sought instead to treat diarrhea in animals. The two became business partners, and roughly four years ago began the process of bringing their treatment, which is not a drug, to the veterinary world. They secured the U.S. patent crucial to protecting their product just this month.
“One of his ideas was for an oral electrolyte nutritional supplement. We released that thing in February or March of 2017 and within about 14 months, we had more than 50 percent of the market share in Montana,” Blatt said. “The first guy who tried the product, the previous winter lost 30 calves in one month. The first 241 calves we treated in Montana with our product, we didn’t lose one.”
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Blatt and Strobel now market the treatment as SX Calf, which has become the top selling scours treatment distributed in Montana by Animal Health International. The partners are now trying to get their product distributed nationally.
None of this would have happened had it not been for the revival of calf 166.
“When we saw 166, its ears were down, its eyes were rolling to the back of its head. The owner said ‘In two hours that thing will dead,’ ” Strobel said. “Two hours later, it was looking for its mom.”
What Strobel’s invention did that other scours treatments didn’t was help the calf start absorbing water through its stomach again. Other types of the treatments battled the diarrhea, but the calf had to be rehydrated intravenously, otherwise the fluid kept being excreted in a yellow diarrhea mucus. The animal might take days to begin drinking fluids. During the wait the calf could still die.
Scours is no small matter for America’s cow-calf operations, or Montana's annual calf crop of 1 million head. It’s a condition caused by bacteria, like E. coli or Salmonella, and it’s a main killer of calves in the first three weeks of life, particularly in the spring when the soil is wet and rich in bacteria. A muddy lot has all the conditions necessary to promote deadly bacteria that cause scours. Calves, like humans, are mostly water — 70 percent to be exact.
That calf killed by scours in the first weeks of its life is a major investment for the rancher, who bred and fed the calf's mother for the 283 days of its gestation. What covers those costs is the calf’s sale, typically in fall when it probably weighs 450 to 600 pounds. Each animal might bring in $680 to $850. If the calf dies, not only does that sale never happen, but the rancher has to breed the cow again and raise another calf. The process is extended 18 months or more.
There’s still much to be done for a calf sickened with scours, Kreuz said, but stopping the diarrhea early and not having to treat the calf intravenously makes a huge difference.
“There’s all kind of things that you have to do to treat dehydration, but it’s one of the tools in the tool box. It’s an important one,” Kreuz said.
The ranch duo Kreuz and Marx take pride in being the first to use SX Calf, back when it was simply known as “foo foo juice.”
Marx wants to know when Strobel and Blatt will be successful enough to begin handing out hats, like John Deere, or Case. He wants his to be a red stocking cap, just like the one in the Smithsonian.